A survey of patients with an indwelling urethral catheter was conducted over a 14-day period in five randomly selected district general hospitals in England. The demographic characteristics of the patients and the types of catheter and urinary drainage bags used were recorded. Observational techniques were used to describe nursing care during meatal cleansing and bag emptying Over the 14-day study period 294 patients were catheterized giving an overall daily incidence of catherization of 11·2 per 1000 of the average daily population. Nurses inserted over 50% of catheters and subsequently maintained all closed urinary drainage systems. The closed system was broken for 42% of patients and only 48% of drainage bags were always observed in the correct position. Techniques aimed at preventing infection were observed more frequently when meatal cleansing was performed separately from daily hygiene. The frequency of hand washing, both before and after meatal cleansing and bag emptying, was low. It is concluded that the procedures and practices involved in the care of the urinary drainage system require re-evaluation and re-emphasis.